Note: This was originally published on ThinkProgress on December 22, 2016.
Despite suffering a major defeat at the Supreme Court this past June, Texas simply can’t stop — won’t stop — undermining reproductive rights. Earlier this month, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) released an updated edition of its abortion booklet — ironically titled “A Woman’s Right to Know” — which unapologetically promotes debunked links between abortion, breast cancer, and adverse psychological risks.
A pregnant person considering termination in the Lone Star state may very well believe that her physical and mental health are at risk if she obtains an abortion. Texas already requires a 24-hour waiting period for abortion, after mandated counseling that includes information on breast cancer, fetal pain and mental health effects. But the updated DSHS booklet spreads further misinformation.
With regards to mental health, the booklet says, “Women report a range of emotions after an abortion. This can include depression or thoughts of suicide. Some women, after their abortion, have also reported feelings of grief, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, regret, sexual dysfunction, avoidance of emotional attachment, flashbacks and substance abuse.”
It goes on to say, “Women with a history of mental health problems are more likely to have mental health problems following an abortion. These women may need additional support.”
While some women may struggle emotionally after seeking abortion care, feelings of regret and depression are not, in fact, the default post-abortion emotions. On the contrary, one three-year study of almost 700 women found that hardly any women regret having an abortion, and many maintain that their abortions were positive, happy experiences.
The booklet also mentions, “If you give birth to your baby, you are less likely to develop breast cancer in the future. Research indicates that having an abortion will not provide you this increased protection against breast cancer.” While the booklet does not explicitly link abortion with an increased risk in developing breast cancer, it implies a connection.
Although the abortion-breast cancer association has been widely refuted, this pesky (and highly inaccurate) depression-by-abortion myth continues to stay afloat — with damning consequences. Not only does promoting such misleading information stigmatize a common medical procedure that 1 in 3 U.S. women will have, but it also directly impacts the quality and availability of abortion care. Anti-choice legislators routinely use this mental health myth to pass restrictions on abortion, from mandatory waiting periods and counseling to gestational limits on abortion.
“For example, when Louisiana passed a 72-hour mandatory delay for women seeking abortion care earlier this year, so-called ‘abortion regret’ was named as a justification,” said Ashley Gray, State Advocacy Advisor at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Other state laws, such as ones which require abortion providers to give women biased counseling or that force women to visit religiously-affiliated crisis pregnancy centers, are more ways in which legislators have legitimized this false information.”
A study recently published in JAMA Psychiatry debunks the abortion-depression myth once and for all.
The Turnaway Study, the most rigorous of its kind, tracked the mental health and well-being of nearly 1,000 women over a period of five years after they received or were denied abortion care. As the New York Times reported, past studies have compared women who had abortions with women who gave birth (which is like comparing apples and oranges), or failed to account for any pre-existing psychological issues in participants. The Turnaway Study both accounted for mental health history and compared women who wanted abortions from the start.
It concluded that “compared with having an abortion, being denied an abortion may be associated with greater risk of initially experiencing adverse psychological outcomes.” In other words, wanting an abortion but being unable to have one is more detrimental to women’s mental health than terminating a pregnancy. Most notably, the researchers said in no uncertain terms that the study’s findings “do not support restricting abortion on the basis that abortion harms women’s mental health.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean state legislators will heed the study’s conclusion, especially now that they’ve been emboldened by Trump’s election win and forthcoming Supreme Court nomination. If anything, they will likely continue to ignore — or, as in the case of Texas, fly in the face of — science and the actual needs of women. Just look at the growing cadre of 20-week abortion bans that are sweeping the nation — most recently in Ohio and potentially soon in Virginia — none of which make an exception for a woman’s mental health needs.
“Many 20-week bans, like the one signed into law by Governor Kasich in Ohio last week, are very transparent in that any existing health exception included in the legislation does not apply to mental health reasons,” Gray said. “It’s important to note how harmful this is to women seeking abortion and how laws like this directly contradict the facts.”
That’s not to say all is lost. Indeed, Gray remains hopeful, thanks in part to the Turnaway Study. “Studies like this help to build evidence against this myth that can be used in the courts to repeal harmful legislation.” And beyond legal matters, the Turnaway Study is a vital tool to help combat the social stigma surrounding abortion. Perhaps knowing that abortion does not adversely affect a person’s mental health will encourage more women to share their abortion stories and engage with their peers and legislators on the topic.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to feel after having an abortion; every person’s experience is unique and valid. State legislators and governments would do well to finally acknowledge this, and abandon the harmful myths that drive legislation designed to make women feel bad about their decisions.